A shaky landing for the visually striking ‘A Trip to the Moon’


Karen O’Connell as Laika and Katrina Clark as the Moon in “Laika the Space Dog.” (Johnny Shryock/Synetic Theater)
December 10, 2012

For childlike wonder, who else working in theater today can meet the enchanting standards of Natsu Onoda Power? Her latest performance piece, “A Trip to the Moon,” ties together her loves of drawing, science fiction, folk tales and children’s stories — ingredients that meshed so brilliantly in her production at Studio Theatre earlier this year, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics.”

Her captivating process, in which actors brandishing markers and paintbrushes draw the scenery as the audience watches, is on display again, this time on the Synetic Theater stage in Crystal City. And while an enjoyable sensation of “how do they do that?” suffuses the newest work — which also features the choreography of Synetic’s Irina Tsikurishvili — there’s an air of incompletion swirling around the show, too.

It is in the joints that “A Trip to the Moon” could still use some strengthening. The 90-minute play is Onoda Power’s riff on one of the earliest sci-fi flicks made, a silent French 1902 movie of the same title, in which a team of scientists land on the lunar surface and fight off a race of creepy moon monsters.

A recreation of scenes from the film is intermingled in the Synetic offering with two other outer-space-themed tales: an ancient Japanese folk story about a foundling child who turns out to be a moon goddess, and an account of the adventures of Laika, the dog launched into orbit in 1957 as an experiment by the Soviet space program.

At moments, “A Trip to the Moon” exposes its celebration of innocence, whether through the actors’ real-time illustrating on a mural-size sheet of drawing paper of the film’s exotic moonscape, or the sweet, sad story of Laika, a stray picked off a street, tested for her reactions to spaceship flight and blasted off into the ether, all by herself. As portrayed by Karen O’Connell (in space helmet, of course), poor Laika valiantly speeds toward certain death. Over the loudspeaker, meanwhile, a mother narrates the tale of Laika’s fate to a child, who may be learning about death for the first time.


Pasquale Guiducci, Ben Arden, and Victoria Bertocci in “A Trip to the Moon.” (Johnny Shryock/Synetic Theater)

The three stories have a thematic link, but the connections perceived by Onoda Power, a theater professor at Georgetown University, come across at this juncture as the fodder for an entertaining lecture rather than a fleshed out theatrical idea. The voice-overs in the narrative feel clunky, akin to what you might hear in primitive cartoons; the announced transitions are of the “And now we take you to . . .” variety. The episodic structure doesn’t supply much cogent rationale, either, for why these disparate subplots are rolled out in one show.

Technically, too, things get a little frenetic on the stage; on the night I attended, the actors wielding geometric shapes to form and re-form images of the modes of transportation contemplated by the team heading to the moon became too caught up in the activity. While the sequence was clever, it ended with someone slashing the drawing paper hanging upstage.

No shortage of imaginative brio restricts the design team of “A Trip to the Moon”: Kendra Rai’s costumes, especially for the moon monsters and the characters of the Japanese folk tale, evoke the whimsical lightness and darkness of children’s dreams. And when the energetic actors pick up their drawing implements, you can’t take your eyes off their exertions. At times, the drawings themselves seem to metamorphose into moving pictures — the art form that gives “A Trip to the Moon” its starting point. Now, to sharpen this worthwhile project, what might be required is another take or two.

A Trip to the Moon

written, directed and illustrated by Natsu Onoda Power. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; set, Giorgos Tsappas; costumes, Kendra Rai; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; props, Suzanne Maloney. With Victoria Bertocci, Katrina Clark, Pasquale Guiducci, Francesca Jandasek, Renata Veberyte Loman, Zana Gankhuyag, Colin Analco, Ben Arden. About 90 minutes. Through Jan. 6 at Synetic Theater in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. www.synetictheater.org . 800-494-8497.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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